Saturday, May 1, 2010

St. Augustine After Confessions

It occurs to me that you wouldn’t know Augustine as well as I do, so hopefully I shall alleviate some of your deep ignorance here.

Confessions is one of the greatest works ever written - the remainder of this list is also made up of other works of Augustine's - like De Trinitate, De doctrina Christiana, De civitate Dei, etc. It has shaped the world to a degree only matched by works like the Bible, of course, and the Koran and the Imitation of Christ, the Summa Theologica and the 'Toilet Reader' of Chairman Mao.

It is almost offensive to speak of after Confessions, since it is so great that no one ought to dare think he can think beyond it.

Many have read the book. It seems like a new edition of it comes out almost every year. I would recommend for you my translations - Maria Boulding's or Henry Chadwick's. I have heard good things of the much older translation of Sheed, but can't comment, since I have never read that one.

So, many have read it, but I bet few 'get it', at least as a whole work of literature and religion. I'm sure the same can be said of many other great works, like The Divine Comedy, War and Peace, Consolation of Philosophy, etc.

Do I 'get it'? I probably get it better than you (ha, ha), but I am still very much a student, still very much throwing theories about attempting to grasp Augustine's mind. I'll never forget my second year in my Theology Master's, having already established myself as the student aficionado of Augustine. I was giving a seminar, roughly about Augustine's theological formation, when one of the students asked me what I thought about why it was written in 13 books. I had no idea. I hadn't yet formed an interest in that question, a question that struck me as second-rate literary theory than as theology properly speaking. But that question certainly got me thinking - and it is a theology question, of that much I am sure. I'll say a word or two about that before moving on to the topic I really want to discuss.

Augustine tells us that his Confessions was 10 books and 3 books. The ten books are "about myself," whereas the 3 remaining he simply says are 'about Scripture.' This is some help, believe it or not. it is most helpful in that we are forced to include book 10 in the first group and not, as some might want, in the second. The tenth is the most interesting of all, in my opinion. This division also deal with the very unsettling number 13. It's unsettling because it is odd, and it is not 12. But 10 is a great number to Augustine (1+2+3+4 he tells us a million times) and 3 is Trinitarian, of course. But the tenth is not autobiographical in a manner that we have gotten used to from the first 9 books. It seems more philosophical, like the last 3. But it is not about Gensis, as these last 3 are. It has two main sections - a discussion of memory, and a discussion of the on-going force of temptation in life. Considered in that manner, it is the perfect conclusion to Books 1-9. There are a million ways to account for Books 11-13, but it is best to see how they relate to 1-9. I think they are about humanity in general in the way that 1-9 are about Augustine in particular. Just some thoughts, but enough of this for now.

So, Confessions leaves us with Augustine a new convert, his mother dies, the end. That was roughly 388-390 AD. Augustine would live another 40 years, write more than 70 additional works, and do truly great things for God and the Church. He had not even become a priest by that point - although he does indicate in Book 9 that he was a priest, but he was to live the majority of his adult life (33 years) as the Bishop of Hippo. What kind of man was Augustine - how do you move on from the revelation of Confessions? Many great authors never 'succeed' after their magnum opus. But, as I've indicated, no one would dispute that Augustine had at least several other magni opi. But I don't want to supply here a biography here - read the standard biography of Peter Brown for that. Rather, I'd like to make a few comments on how the personality and style that you have seen expressed in Confessions lived on. Did he remain the same open-book, the same refreshingly honest and devout soul throughout his life?

For starters, we have to admit that for any time, Augustine's autobiography was strikingly candid. Even in this day and age when people air their dirty laundry too freely at times, imagine how difficult it would be to write a history of your personal transgressions. I don't do it here. When I speak of my flaws (at least the one's I'm not actually proud of!) I speak rather cryptically. One day I would like to be able to divulge them more thoroughly so that others might profit from them, but that day is not today. And even when I do it, it shall be done with all the right rhetorical trappings. Augustine had trappings too, let's not forget, but they weren't sufficient to render all of his contemporaries' sense of propriety inert. I firmly believe that Augustine was writing a bit of an apologia here, but I would not go nearly as far as O’Donnell in his recent biography who called Augustine basically a shameless self-promoter. Part of what he was doing was just what Newman was to do 1400 years later, defend his current belief by clearly excoriating his previous philosophies.

Yet you might be surprised to know that I see the same basic candour in his subsequently written homilies and letters. He tells us many years later that both he and his companions still found ‘these confessions’ moving. Augustine was not your average sort of straight-laced bishop, or, 5th century African bishops are not your standard straight-laced bishops, Augustine most of all. He was, by my standard, very emotional and emotive, but all for the good and all in the right way (mostly all). It is no wonder that he had to very clearly differ from the stoical Pelagians on the matter of human willing and on the matter of the emotional life of Christ, etc. Although Augustine spoke about the need for rational action, that our reason should rule our passions, what this amounted to stood in radical contrast to Stoicism. To Augustine, Christ and the Christian saints were passionate about God. Augustine loved to heartily praise and adore God in song and word. To him the saint was naturally a mystic, who experienced a lively life of interaction with God. I wonder how easily he fit into the soberer life of the Christians in Italy. I imagine not well, and that this made his return to Africa a no-brainer. His passion seems to be shared by the married Christian bishop and poet, St. Paulinus, but I suspect not by St. Ambrose.


  1. Hi Colin: I'll defer to your expertise on Augustine. I have read the Confessions, a couple of times, and many years ago took a course on St. Augustine at St. Michael's College, U of T. I guess what strikes me about St. Augustine, as far removed as I am from any recent study of his works, is simply his willingness to frame his reflections on his life in theological terms. To the modern mind, that probably seems quaint.

  2. Well, you are right. But don't forget: Augustine was in many ways an anomaly even in his own time: the closest thing we get to autobiography in the Ancient Christian world is St. Gregory Nazianzus' poems on his own life. Confessions was truly original and unprecedented.